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Crowds Descend on National Mall to Celebrate Inauguration

January 20, 2009 at 6:20 PM EDT
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As many as 2 million people converged on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to witness the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Gwen Ifill reports on the record crowds and their reactions to the historic day.

JIM LEHRER: Gwen Ifill was on the mall with the crowd since early this morning, and here is her report.

GWEN IFILL: Eugenia Pete managed to hold it together all the way from Tulsa to Washington, right up until the moment President Obama actually took the oath of office. Traveling cross-country to see the new president she said was essential, but actually witnessing the oath turned out to be overwhelming.

Eugenia, you look like you want to cry again.

EUGENIA PETE: It’s just awesome. They’re happy tears. I have been crying all day. I mean, when I first walked up here, I cried because it was cold. And then — but the ceremony — I’m happy to be here, and it was just so emotional for me.

I have a little boy. He can — he can do what he wants to do. He don’t have to be just a rap star or basketball player, you know? He can do it. The sky is truly the limit now, we’ve blown open that ceiling, and I am just full to overflowing. And I just thank God that I could be a part of this.

GWEN IFILL: More than a million like-minded citizens braved frigid cold and pedestrian gridlock on nearly two miles of national parkland, from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, so they could say they had been part of the moment.

One of those was Ella Mae Johnson who, at the age of 105, traveled from Cleveland to be history’s witness. Although she is confined to a wheelchair, nothing she said would have stopped her.

ELLA MAE JOHNSON: Someone said she was not going to stay out in the cold. And maybe she or someone else said, “I’ll see it on television.”

GWEN IFILL: So why are you doing it?

ELLA MAE JOHNSON: I want to be here. I want to see the beginning of a shared responsibility by people, not just white, not black, not any one people, but together. And it seems to me, by the way that people are responding to him, that he may be successful now.

GWEN IFILL: Johnson, a retired social worker who has traveled to the president’s ancestral home of Kenya, knew she wanted to see the new president take office for herself.

ELLA MAE JOHNSON: I hope the time comes when we can just be who we are and not worry or believe that, if we call ourselves something else, we’ll get better attention, better treatment.

I hope that we get to the point, not because we’re Christians or Jews or Muslims, but because we’re human. And we want to be treated, we need to be treated, not one taking advantage, but all recognizing that there won’t be peace — there may be quiet or silence — but it won’t be peace.

Witnessing history

Fraser Yeung
Well, this one, this time, it's very special. I think it is amazing. I have never thought about history turning so quickly.

GWEN IFILL: The diverse and cheerful crowd flooded the mall in a sea of American flags cheering every mention of Mr. Obama's name and at one point booing outgoing President Bush and cheering when the helicopter carrying him away flew above.

But celebration by far outpaced recrimination.

DESHAWNDA SIBLEY-BROWN: We went to a ball last night. We came home, changed clothes, and we came right back out. We have not slept. We were not going to miss today.

INAUGURATION ATTENDEE: This is a special day.

GWEN IFILL: Kind of alarming.

DESHAWNDA SIBLEY-BROWN: And we still look good.

GWEN IFILL: Fraser Yeung and his daughter, Amy, who live in and near Washington, D.C., have made it a regular practice to attend inaugurations together.

Is it about Barack Obama or just in general the whole idea of the inauguration?

FRASER YEUNG: Well, this one, this time, it's very special. I think it is amazing. I have never thought about history turning so quickly.

But anyhow, in any event, I would just would like to come over to participate. Particularly as a U.S. citizen, I am proud every time when we feel that we are so free, we could come over to express ourselves. So this is one of the opportunities. I really think about that.

GWEN IFILL: The Knight family traveled from their hometown of Champaign, Illinois, to see their former senator sworn in.

LIBBY KNIGHT: I just think it's so cool how like so many young people, like my age, are just getting involved in it and just to be a part of history. It's just very cool.

BRUCE KNIGHT: I work in local government. And, you know, I think that people are guardedly optimistic, but they're scared, too. So, you know, there's a lot of hope that's here today, but there's a lot of -- a lot of fear, still, and, you know, the times that are ahead of us yet.

GWEN IFILL: Many in the crowd said they campaigned for Obama and especially wanted to hear his call to personal responsibility.

RUSTY KELLY: I want to hear what he wants us to do, how we can be part of the change and how we can help the country.

Coming 'full circle'

Barbara Williams Emerson
I was here for the march on Washington, which I think was the greatest day up to now, and I was here setting up for Resurrection City for the poor people's campaign when Dr. King was assassinated.

GWEN IFILL: Others saw the day as the culmination of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, dream, only days after the civil rights icon would have turned 80.

Barbara Williams Emerson, whose father, Hosea Williams, was a King lieutenant, came to Washington from Atlanta.

BARBARA WILLIAMS EMERSON: It makes me feel like we've come full circle. I was here for the march on Washington, which I think was the greatest day up to now, and I was here setting up for Resurrection City for the poor people's campaign when Dr. King was assassinated. I think that was the saddest day for us, and I think today is the happiest day, and I'm just very proud to be here.

GWEN IFILL: Security was tight and the weather cold, but nothing like 1985, when President Reagan's second oath was delivered indoors. Obama supporters today said they were satisfied.

MARY KNIGHT: I hope that the people will give President Obama time to make his plan work, you know. I hope that they don't think he can do it overnight, because he certainly can't do it overnight.

GWEN IFILL: And Ella Mae Johnson said her optimism was justified.

What do you hope for the most for him, as his administration begins?

ELLA MAE JOHNSON: I hope for him that there are people who claim they want peace, no war, will act as if they don't want war. I hope that if there are people who say, "I will feed the hungry, clothe the naked," he will be leading us.

I mean, I speak with him. I may not talk with him. But my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren will know I was there.

GWEN IFILL: And the children and grandchildren who also witnessed the inauguration today can say the same thing.